by Andy Stepniewski

revised by Andy Stepniewski

East of the Okanogan River lies a terrain of ancient gneiss, schist, and granitic bedrock smoothed over by glaciation. Once a large island—the Okanogan subcontinent—this territory became embedded in the North American continent that moved westward and collided with it some 100 million years ago. Kettle Falls is about on the east coast of the former island; the Columbia River flows through a trench where the two plates engaged. Tonasket is on the island’s other coast—the west coast of the North American landmass until 70–50 million years ago when another subcontinent, the North Cascades, collided and docked. The Okanogan Valley is the remnant of the trench on the ocean floor where these two plates met. Coincident with the latter event, a massive magma flow pushed up the older continental crust of gneiss many miles east of the trench. The resultant Okanogan Dome—a granite intrusion some 20 miles across—forms the core of the Okanogan Highlands. 

Habitats are varied in this scenic region: shrub-steppe and Ponderosa Pine forests at valley-bottom elevations; open grasslands and Douglas-fir/Western Larch forests at higher and moister elevations, interrupted by marshes and glacial lakes; and higher still, stands of Engelmann Spruce and alder and willow thickets in cold swales. Of the many breeding birds, some have boreal affinities (e.g., Common Loon, Great Gray Owl); non-breeding visitors of interest to birders include Snow Bunting, White-winged Crossbill (irregular), and Common Redpoll.

The most productive birding areas extend north from SR-20 to the U.S.-Canada border. This is a remote region; once you leave US-97 in the Okanogan Valley, services are few. The main roads are kept open in winter and are usually well sanded. Nonetheless, make sure you are properly equipped if contemplating a winter visit. Carry chains, a shovel, and cold-weather survival supplies (extra clothing, extra food, sleeping bags). Four-wheel drive, though not absolutely necessary, may be reassuring.



At the north end of Tonasket on US-97, bear east onto Whitcomb Avenue, which merges into Jonathan Street, then becomes Havillah Road (Tonasket-Havillah Road on some maps) as it leaves town and begins climbing out of the Okanogan Valley. In early summer, check for Bobolinks in the irrigated fields on the left side of the road (3.6 miles). Ahead, while ascending a long slope, begin looking for Western Bluebirds as you enter a scattered forest of Ponderosa Pine (3.5 miles). Still farther, a denser stand of pines on the right side of road at 5.9 miles can be good for White-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches and Red Crossbill. Open fields from here up—and throughout the region—are excellent for raptors. In summer, check for Northern Harrier, Swainson’s and Red-tailed Hawks, Golden Eagle, and American Kestrel, and in winter for Rough-legged Hawk and the occasional Gyrfalcon.

At the Highland Sno-Park sign (2.2 miles), turn right onto FR-3230, a gravel road that winds south through a mosaic of fields and forests—excellent Great Gray Owl habitat. Begin looking at the end of the meadow beyond the third cattle guard (0.5 mile), especially at dawn and dusk. A particularly good area for this rare, highly local breeding species has been the selectively logged Douglas-fir and Western Larch forest south of the fourth cattle guard (0.4 mile). Walk south from here on the old logging roads (cross-country ski trails in winter). Watch also for Williamson’s Sapsucker (early April through September), Hairy, American Three-toed, Black-backed (uncommon), and Pileated Woodpeckers, and Northern Flicker. Continue driving uphill on FR-3230. Turn right onto FR-260, signed Highland Sno-Park (0.4 mile), and park at the gate (0.1 mile). Great Gray Owls have been seen here regularly. Listen for Barred and Northern Saw-whet Owls after dark. (Boreal Owl was heard here one cold March night.)

Return to Havillah Road and turn right, passing the village of Havillah (0.6 mile) with its imposing Lutheran church, testimony to the hardy settlers who farmed this area in the late 1800s. Beyond Havillah is another area of grasslands, excellent in winter for Rough-legged Hawk and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch. At the next junction (2.7 miles), turn left (north) toward Chesaw on Havillah Road (Kipling Road on some maps). Beyond the Sitzmark Ski Area (1.1 miles), turn right (east) onto Hungry Hollow Road and go 0.2 mile to a dense grove of Engelmann Spruce and Quaking Aspen, a fine place to find White-winged Crossbills in invasion years (typically late July through winter). Listen for their loud, staccato chif…chif…chif call with an inflective quality quite different from the strident, harder notes of most Red Crossbills. Search also for Northern Pygmy-Owl and Pine Grosbeak, especially in winter. Great Gray Owls have nested nearby on fenced, private land (no access, but birds are sometimes seen from the road). Willow Flycatcher and Northern Waterthrush nest in an alder swamp on the downhill side of the road.

Return to Havillah Road and turn right, stopping at an overlook above Muskrat Lake (0.6 mile) with a beautiful view of the Okanogan Highlands. Scope the lake (drier in recent years, but water may return) and margins for nesting waterfowl, Red-necked and Eared Grebes, Tree Swallow, Mountain Bluebird, and Vesper Sparrow. In winter, the snowy fields attract Rough-legged Hawks and Snow Buntings. Continuing north on Havillah Road, in winter check the vicinity of several cattle feedlots beginning in 1.4 miles for Northern Goshawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Golden Eagle, American Tree Sparrow (roadside weeds), Snow Bunting, and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.

In 1.6 miles, Havillah Road meets Chesaw Road (aka Oroville-Toroda Creek Road; turning left here will bring you to Oroville and US-97 in a dozen miles, page 441). Continue ahead on Davies Road to reach Teal Lake (2.0 miles). Ring-necked Duck, Red-necked Grebe, Gray Jay, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet are representative of the many species found on and around the lake. North of Teal Lake, turn left (west) onto Fletcher Road (0.7 mile) and go steeply down to Molson Road (2.0 miles), passing another area of grasslands. Turn right to the all-but-abandoned mining town of Molson (1.5 miles). During its brief heyday in the early 1900s, Molson was the terminus for a railway, at that time the highest in the state. The open fields around town are excellent in summer for Swainson’s Hawk, Say’s Phoebe, and Mountain Bluebird, and in winter for Snow Bunting and Common Redpoll (weedy areas).

Continuing northwest out of town, Molson Road becomes Ninemile Road (the former railroad grade). For the next two miles, a string of shallow lakes known as the Molson Lakes hosts Common Loon (apparently non-breeders), Red-necked Grebe, many waterfowl (including Canvasback), and Yellow-headed Blackbird in the warmer months. The lakes are usually frozen in winter except for a small patch of open water at the west end of the westernmost lake that sometimes attracts Bufflehead and Common Goldeneye. Within the following two miles, the road turns west and follows a fenceline on the U.S.-Canada border where you may find Northern Pygmy-Owl and Pygmy Nuthatch in the pines.



On the southern outskirts of Molson, turn east toward Chesaw on Mary Ann Creek Road (aka Molson Summit Road and County Road 4839). Keep left with this road at a fork in 2.9 miles, passing through a region of Engelmann Spruce and Quaking Aspen on north slopes and valley bottoms, and Douglas-fir on south-facing slopes. The spruces have breeding Ruby-crowned Kinglet, the deciduous bottomlands, Ruffed Grouse. Beginning in 3.0 miles and continuing for the next 2.0 miles to the intersection with Chesaw Road (aka Oroville-Toroda Creek Road), the 2,480-acre Chesaw Wildlife Area protects habitat for a remnant population of Sharp-tailed Grouse (but Gray Partridge and Ruffed Grouse are more common here). Grasslands on the left (east) side of the road are nesting habitat; wintering habitat is in the riparian growth on the right. Sharp-taileds are especially fond of the buds of Water Birch, identifiable from its distinctive copper-colored bark; seed cones of this tall shrub also attract Common Redpolls (Hoary has been recorded) some winters.

Before continuing to Chesaw, explore other roads in the area, such as Nealy, Hungry Hollow, Davies and Fields Roads (see map, page 448). Turning back west on Chesaw Road, in 2.2 miles, turn right onto Fields Road. In 0.5 mile, you’ll find Fields Lake on your right, with many nesting ducks and Black Terns. Davies Road connects in another 0.6 mile. Continuing on Fields Road, you travel through a gully with habitat for Clay-colored Sparrow. In 1.4 miles, connect again with MaryAnn Creek Road, and turn right five miles (east) to loop back to Chesaw Road.

Turn left at the intersection; it is 2.1 miles east to the center of the village of Chesaw. Keep straight ahead onto Bolster Road. For the next three miles, the road parallels alder- and willow-lined Myers Creek, an excellent place in late spring and early summer for Northern Waterthrush, American Redstart, Common Yellowthroat, and Lincoln’s Sparrow. Ruby-crowned Kinglets are common in patches of Engelmann Spruce. This is all private land, so you must bird from the road; creek noise is an added challenge. In winter, check the Mountain Alder and Water Birch thickets around Chesaw for Common Redpoll (erratic).

Return to Chesaw, turn left onto Chesaw Road, and travel 2.3 miles to an intersection on the right with Myers Creek Road (aka Lost Lake Road). This road (closed by snow in winter) follows Myers Creek upstream, becoming FR-34 as it enters the Okanogan National Forest (3.1 miles). At a four-way intersection (1.7 miles), take FR-050, following signs to Lost Lake. In 0.4 mile, just before the Lost Lake Campground entrance, turn left (south) with FR-050, proceed 0.5 mile, and park at a slight rise overlooking Lost Lake and adjacent marsh, where Common Loon and Black Tern usually nest. Williamson’s Sapsucker can be found in the campground; watch also for American Three-toed Woodpecker.

Return to Chesaw Road and turn right. For the next 7.2 miles to Beaver Lake Campground, the road passes through a succession of interesting habitats. First comes a forest-rimmed meadow (Great Gray Owl has been seen here), followed by a mature forest of Douglas-fir and Engelmann Spruce in a deep gorge (Northern Goshawk, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Barred Owl). Finally, Beth Lake and Beaver Lake have nesting Barrow’s Goldeneye, Red-necked Grebe, Black Tern, and many other wetland birds. From Beaver Lake Campground at night, listen for Flammulated Owl “booting” from the steep, south-facing slopes north of the campground and Barred Owl hooting from the dense, old-growth forests on the steep ridges to the south.

FR-32 turns right at a fork next to the campground. In summer, you may drive this road south from Beaver Lake to Bonaparte Lake (following paragraph). When winter snow closes the gravel forest roads, continue instead on Chesaw Road to its end in about four miles at a T-intersection with Toroda Creek Road. Go right here and ascend the Toroda Creek valley to reach SR-20 at Wauconda in about 14 miles. Great Gray and Northern Pygmy-Owls have been seen in fields and forest edges at various places along this route. Northern Saw-whet Owls call from the hillsides in late winter, and flocks of Common Redpolls sometimes feed along the weedy roadsides. From Wauconda, it is 3.5 miles west on SR-20 to the intersection with Bonaparte Lake Road.

Except in winter, you may turn right (southwest) onto FR-32 at Beaver Lake Campground and drive south to Bonaparte Lake. Stay left with FR-32 at the fork with FR-33 in 3.2 miles. In another 1.4 miles, turn left (east) onto FR-3240, marked Virginia Lilly Nature Trail. Drive this road slowly at dawn or dusk, watching for Great Gray Owl. Park at the nature trail parking lot (spur on the left in 6.6 miles). The loop trail (may be overgrown in places) goes through Douglas-fir and Engelmann Spruce forests, with marsh and pond habitats. Black-backed Woodpeckers have been seen here.

Bonaparte Lake Campground, another 1.3 miles down FR-32, is a good base for exploring this part of the Okanogan country. Bonaparte Lake itself is usually not too productive, but the surrounding forests have Flammulated Owl. South from the campground, FR-32 becomes Bonaparte Lake Road (open year round) and continues past peat bogs with Virginia Rail, Sora, and Wilson’s Snipe, reaching SR-20 in five-plus miles. From this corner, it is 20 miles west to Tonasket or 20 miles east to Republic (page 457).



A great area for “eastern” species such as Least Flycatcher, Red-eyed Vireo, Veery, Northern Waterthrush, and American Redstart is at Nespelem on the Colville Indian Reservation, 19 miles north of Grand Coulee on SR-155. Start in town on SR-155 at the highway’s intersection with Videoquest Boulevard (aka Schoolhouse Loop Road). First, check the riparian habitat along the west side of the highway. For quieter birding, go west 0.1 mile from the intersection and park on the west side of the creek. Walk upstream (north) along the track here. Look also for Black-chinned Hummingbird and many other species tied to riparian habitat. Bewick’s Wren, spreading north from the Columbia Basin, has been noted here.

Nearby, Park City Loop Road offers excellent low-elevation Okanogan birding hitting a variety of habitats: riparian, fields and pastures, and Ponderosa Pine woodland. Go north two miles from Nespelem on SR-155 to Park City Loop Road. Go right (east) and stop as you please along this lightly travelled road. Check aspen copses for Least Flycatcher and Ponderosa Pine woods for White-breasted Nuthatch, Cassin’s Finch, and Red Crossbill. In 4.7 miles, keep right (south) on the loop. In this area, stop by the Nespelem River and explore the expansive stretch of riparian habitat, a good bet for all the expected “eastern” birds. In 0.8 mile, turn right onto Gold Lake Road. Continue south 5.3 miles into Nespelem, where the road becomes 8th Street. At C Street, turn right (west) and go 0.1 mile to 10th Street. Go left (south) 0.1 mile to E Street (aka Jackson Boulevard and Videoquest Boulevard). Turn right (west) and reach SR-155 in 0.1 mile.